Taliban blowback: Fiction tackles reality in debut novel
Fathers quietly bring home the burdens and responsibilities of their work, which their children often notice in his tired eyes or a heavy sigh. For local author Mark Saunders, that boyhood curiosity must have been especially complex. When his dad, former U.S. diplomat Harold Saunders, returned home after helping Henry Kissinger negotiate peace agreements between Egypt and Israel, or after having coordinated efforts to secure the release of American hostages during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, what did the young son absorb?
"I don't know how Mark Saunders tapped into the material for his novel," says author John Casey, who has had high praise for Saunder's debut novel, Ministers of Fire, "but it rings true. An instructive but above all exciting book."
Indeed, as a curious young man, Saunders was intrigued by his father's work.
"At some point in my twenties," says Saunders, now 45, "I was reading a pretty obscure book about the Chinese intelligence services, and I stumbled on the fact that the CIA and the Chinese had worked together in the late 1970s to arm the Afghan freedom fighters, the mujahedin, which was something my father was involved with."
From this, the seeds for of a literary thriller were planted. Saunders would come to the University of Virginia's Creative writing program, where he would work on the book, and in the late 1990s he began shopping it around. It was a hard sell. Intrigue about the goings on in Afghanistan, and American and Chinese involvement in training and funding the mujahedin (including a freedom fighter named Osama Bin Laden) was still a pretty obscure subject.
Then history interrupted.
"The whole thing didn't really come together until 9/11," says Saunders, "when everyone realized that the mujahedin were now the Taliban, and we had created them."
Post 9/11, Saunders realized that there were people in the Central Intelligence Agency and in Chinese security whose careers would be ruined if the story of their collaboration with its perpetrators were to surface.
In 2002, the main character of Ministers of Fire, Lucius Burling, a former CIA station chief in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, lives a less covert existence as the American consul in Shanghai; but after the 9/11 attacks his past adventures in the country have come back to haunt him. Meanwhile, a Chinese dissident physicist, whose escape from China was organized by a faction of the CIA, could be selling nuclear secrets.
Still, it would be a decade before Saunders would finally find a publisher, Ohio University/Swallow.
"I’ve been very discouraged at times," says Saunders, "but when I approach the writing because it’s something I love to do, not just to be published or recognized, I get back in the groove again."
Saunders will read from his novel Ministers of Fire at the New Dominion Bookshop on Friday, May 18th, at 5:30pm.